Imagine my surprise, interest, and excitement as I opened for the first time Williams Isaacs' Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together! There at the top of the introductory chapter was Isaiah 1:18, "Come now, let us reason together,..." I thought, "Wow!" and from an MIT professor! Maybe dialogue can be a key ingredient in effective Story Listening Evangelism
My immediate excitement was short lived for two reasons: First, consulting a trusted commentary on Isaiah, I discovered the verb to reason belongs to OT legalese for a rebuke. Sinners are not called upon to enter into debate with God but to stand at attention while He sums up His case against them and explains the alternatives facing them ( Page H. Kelley, "Isaiah," Broadman Bible Commentary, Volume 5, page 189). Second, and more telling, is that dialogue purists, such as the dialogue think tank that Isaacs is a part of, say that in dialogue all parties give up something of themselves and come away from the table with something new, a synthesis. How can you have dialogue with an immutable God? How can you witness to a person with the absolute claim that God makes on a person? Is there something of God that bends in his seeking to save that which was lost? Or did the bending already take place in creation and incarnation? As tantalizing as a chase down those paths might be, I'd rather at this time share with you the things that dialogue can unequivocally contribute to the SLE toolbox.
Most of us believe at some level that we must fix things or change people
in order to make them reachable. Dialogue does not call for such
behavior. Rather, it asks us to listen for an already existing
wholeness, and to create a new kind of association in which we listen
deeply to all the views that people may express (Dialogue, 20).
Perhaps the best evangelism is that which listens for the wholeness that comes from the fact that God's story is moving toward the lost person's story for an aha! moment collision. Perhaps the openness of dialogue calls witnesses to realize there is more than one way to enter into and stay in a saving conversation with a person--that there is more than one way to share faith with a person.The essence of dialogue is providing a safe container, a crucible, whereby a lost person can examine the claims of God on his or her life and the witness can listen attentively to the cry for help and even the protests against God from that same lost person. A crucible's sole task is to hold, and that's all! Crucibles are fragile, they break easily, even those that hold molten steel when dropped, shatter into pieces. How much like the witnessing encounter: fragile, easily shattered, yet when it holds, a life is transformed!
Dialogue is the process whereby people make meaning together. In SLE the witness creates a safe atmosphere where the meaning and claims of God in a person's life can be safely explored.
Dialogue demands deep, effective listening--that means not thinking alone. Thinking alone involves four habits: abstraction or fragmentation, idolatry of memory, certainty, and violence.
Abstraction is often a sign or clue of personal pain on the part of the witness and/or the lost person. Abstraction also creates fragmentation. This occurs when a witness sees himself or herself in a whole different category than that of the lost person. Often this may occur as a holier than thou attitude or that I have all of the truth.
Idolatry of memory occurs when a person confuses memory with thinking. The problem is that thoughts become re-presented in the consciousness as if they were real and active now. That can lead a person to let a peak experience from the past become an idol. So a witness will think that there is only one way to lead a person to the Lord because they were successful in the past in that one way. For the lost person a peak experience from the past may be when their view of who God is failed them in a given situation. That memory colors all their present experiences and up until this current witness, closed the door to salvation. Another issue with the idolatry of memory is that it causes a person to avoid the pain of the present moment. That means a witness may have difficulty sharing faith with someone because of the pain that their counterstory experiences from the story of the lost person. Or it could mean that the lost person is stuck on experience in the past. That pain blocks them from the saving graces of God in the present moment.
Certainty is another hindrance to dialogue and effective evangelism. It is not the witness's certainty of the saving power of God. Rather, it is when the witness takes on a partial or limited view of the lost person and sees his or her understanding as accurate and complete. The witness stereotypes the lost person instead of just letting the lost person be himself or herself in the present moment. Certainty also occurs when a person rigidly holds onto his or her own personal views. Certainty prevents reflection or perception about the possibilities such as a different way to reach a person or a different way God may speak to a particular lost person. And behind that mask of certainty, if we can call it that, is the fear that there will be nothing beneath if we let go of our beliefs. Witnesses need to remember that God's everylasting arms are beneath. Witnesses need to create an atmosphere where lost people can realize they can let go of their dysfunctional beliefs long enough to expereince God's story.
Violence occurs as a detriment to dialogue when we impose our views on others and the world. That's what many non-believers do when they cry, "Foul!" at the absolute faith claims of Christianity. We do it ourselves when we judge and defend our own interpretations as if they are the final truth. Ultimately, God has the final word. Isaacs says the real problem with violence in thinking alone is that we live in a world that is connected without any genuine contact happening between people. Witnesses, instead of judging a lost person, need to get close enough to be in contact with a lost person. Just like Red Adair, the famous oil well firefighter, had to belly up to the out of control infernos in order to put the fire out, Christian witnesses have to get close to lost people to deliver their witness. The skills of dialogue and other tools in the SLE toolbox equip a witness to do that.
The true essence of dialogue is thinking together and that provides the cures for thinking alone.
The principle of participation is the cure for abstraction and fragmentation. That's where the witness learns to pay attention to the details that are going on in a conversation with a lost person. That's where the witness senses his or her connection to other people and to the God who is reaching out to save that lost person.
The principle of unfolding is the cure for idolatry. This is a quantum physics idea that there is an invisible patterned reality waiting to unfold in the present visible form. For SLE that means as you listen to a person share their story, from time to time, something is going to come into your awareness as you listen for their meta-story and God's story coming towards their life. It is like watching an eddy on the side of a river. As that whirlpool takes place in front of you and the water flows through that form, sometimes a stick, a piece of debris, or a leaf may show up, appearing and then disappearing. As you listen to a lost person using the skills of dialogue and other tools in the story listening toolbox, you'll notice that unfolding continues to take place.
The principle of awareness is the cure for certainty. That's when the witness develops the capacity to see the living processes that underlie all of things that are taking place in that witnessing conversation and the life of the lost person. That may include body movements and amount of animation in the tone of voice. It may also include becoming aware of ourselves as a witness and the impact that we are having in that moment in the life of the lost person.
The principle of coherence is the cure for violence, when we're seeing only the fragments and not the whole. And that involves the whole process of story listening--learning to see how everything fits together instead of judging a person on bits and pieces of their lives.
Why dialogue is an important tool for Story Listening Evangelism is that it helps us to build capacity as witnesses. Dialogue does this through listening, respecting, suspending, and voicing. Listening means hearing the words of the lost person, accepting and embracing that person, and also letting go of the inner clamor that goes on inside our minds as we attempt to hear that person's story.
Respecting is looking for the streams that feed the pool of another person's experience. We begin to understand why a person has behaved or believed the way that they have. We see the lost person as a legitimate person in the eyes of God who is worthy of salvation, who is crying out for help for salvation. We also see God's story coming to the rescue.
Suspending is another tool in dialogue that can assist the witness in Story Listening Evangelism. Suspending allows us to suspend our judgment, to change direction, to stop, to step back, to see things with new eyes--even the eyes of God. It also involves the act of looking at our own thought processes which in SLE is called counter story. We begin to notice what the other person's story kicks up into our conscious awareness from our own unconscious.
Dialogue is a very helpful skill for the practice of SLE. As we practice suspending, the witness stops and asks, "How is this working? What is going on here? How has this problem manifested itself in the life of the lost person? Why is that person so sure? What is leading a person to hold onto their sin, their loss, or their choice to go it alone without God so intensely?" A witness can ask himself or herself what is the payoff in this person's story? What would happen if you let go of your protestations against God? What is the risk if you invite Jesus Christ to come into your life? What might you lose? What do you fear you would lose?
Voicing is another helpful skill that comes from dialogue that can inform our Story Listening Evangelism. Voicing is revealing what is true for you regardless of other influences that my be brought to bear. It means at times, sharing your counterstory with the lost person in a story check--asking if your perception of their story is accurate. In essence, you ask yourself, "What needs to be expressed now in order to find my own voice?" The witness needs to be willing to be still, to trust the emptiness, even to leap into the emptiness of the void. It means finding the right words to say and also to listen for what Isaacs calls the distant thunder, to listen for what still small voice is speaking to you as that person reveals himself or herself to you to story.
There is much more we can learn from Isaac's book, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together that can teach us to become better listeners and better witnesses. This has been only a brief examination of some key elements that need to be considered when you're a witness listening with all you've got to a lost person.
I told you it was DEEP! So is salvation! Witnessing is hard work and entering into the story of a lost person is hard work. The deep skills of dialogue can assist the witness to hear the cry for help, the metasotry of the lost person, even before the lost person is consciously aware of his or her eternal need. I encourage you to get a copy of Isaacs' book and take it for a spin with evangelism in mind.
So, dialogue can be an important tool that informs our witness even without entering into the sticky debate of whether God is immutable or not or whether the certainty of the absolute claim of God upon us in a fierce with dialogue is a tool for evangelism.
I welcome and await your feedback and discussion.